Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Other Heroes: A Portrayal of Women in Comics - Part 2

Editor’s note: This series of blog posts was adapted from a paper written by Erminia “Minnie” Saucedo. Minnie’s series on this topic will enlighten you on the portrayal of women in comics. We’re excited that she’s shared this with us. Enjoy this enlightening series.


By Erminia Saucedo


Women in Refrigerators Syndrome


While a writer limiting a female heroes’ potential is a problem that has continued for generations, super heroines now have another modern writer created terror to fear: Women in Refrigerators syndrome.

Panel from Green Lantern #54
Women in Refrigerators, a term first used by comic writer and lasting comic enthusiast Gail Simone in 1999, is a throw back reference to an early issue of The Green Lantern. In Green Lantern #54, written then by Ron Marz, the Green Lantern of the time, Kyle Rayner, returns to his apartment to find that his girlfriend, Alex DeWitt, had been killed by the villain Major Force and stuffed into his kitchen refrigerator; “Women in Refrigerators” was quite literally inspired by a murdered woman in a refrigerator. Simone used this term to describe the harsh condition of being a comic book super heroine, which many times means being either killed, raped, depowered, turned evil or having some other terrible life altering event happen that makes it less likely for a female character to bounce back. She started a website in March of 1999, which she named after her new term, that hosts an A to Z list complied by Simone herself of super heroines that have fallen victim to Women in Refrigerators syndrome. From the first Aquagirl, Tula, who was killed by drowning in poisonous waters while trying to protect the underwater city of Atlantis to even the second Wonder Woman, Donna, who has been killed, revived and has now ultimately lost her goddess powers. A character that stands out due to being an over all amazing character and a victim of both limited written potential and Women in Refrigerator syndrome is Barbara Gordon, the second Batgirl. She is paralyzed from the waist down after a battle and rather than asking the scientists of Wayne Enterprises to find some way to fix her injury with science, Gordon backs away from preventing crime without a fight and becomes the wheel-chair bound Oracle instead. Batman, on the other hand, breaks his back later in a story titled Knightfall and recovers with some training and is soon back to fighting crime on the dark streets of Gotham City. The only things that separated these two heroes was their written potential and had the writers given Barbra a fighting chance, as she was always written strongly in the series, she could have avoided being infected with Women in Refrigerators syndrome and could even still be a fierce working hero today, though, admittedly, her work as Oracle has been phenomenal.


 Barbara Gordon, Batgirl
Simone’s list has, for years, been reference for many comic book fans as well as feminist researchers, enough so that the buzz her now online famous list has attracted has caused other officials in her industry to write letters responding to her compilation of super heroines infected with the syndrome, putting in their own thoughts on the topic of Women in Refrigerators syndrome and how it has continued to take place. A few of the letters, posted on the list’s website had been sent to Simone in accordance to her list and term have been from writer Marv Wolfman, who was half of the imaginative team that created many powerful heroines in The Teen Titans, and D.C. Comics editor Joan Hilty. Wolfman wrote, “I think the wholesale slaughter is because there’s a lot of writers who think all major character motivation is made by killing folk and women characters are easier to kill than male characters because so few of them are major heroes on their own…The reason for that is, I fear, that most boys want to read stories about big muscled guy heroes showing off than a gal hero.” He makes a good point and he brings up character motivation, he is giving the explanation of Women in Refrigerators syndrome as being a cultural action rather than personal; he later says that acknowledging this does not condone it, but merely explains why it could be done.


Women are seen to be more emotional and expressive of those emotions, so to kill off a female hero or character could act as a strategy to elicit a reader response; however, the sad down side to this is that writers kill many characters that were still “young” and had the potential to possibly become their own major heroes. Some have tried to argue that male heroes have been killed or maimed too, however Hilty takes a drastic stand in response against those who state that logic. She wrote, “ The response that ‘male characters get killed too’ is completely disingenuous…It’s not how often it is done, it’s HOW it’s done and TO WHOM certain things are done. The sexually violent visual language of how these women get killed is remarkably consistent. Really, the larger reality is that American mainstream comics, built by guys for guys on the crumbling foundations of super hero fantasy, remain intensely hostile to women, consciously and subconsciously.” She takes the position that Women in Refrigerators syndrome is a conscious and almost personal action against heroines and women in the realm of male run universe of heroes; it’s the industry that allows this to happen. So it is still culture, but in a more personal form. It is true that many writers are male, making it easier to write characters and stories for men by men, giving the comic world an almost sexist take on their treatment of women. Drawing from Hilty’s own views, most men were raised to either see themselves as the better sex or to be better than women in some way, making them uncomfortable and insecure about a woman besting them in some form or another, so why should super heroes, and the men who write them, be any different? Taking a heroine who could grow too strong out of the equation would leave more for the hero to take: the sympathy for losing a comrade, gaining the “will to go on” factor and then more room for his own story arc. Whether it is personal or unconscious, culture is easily a big part of the treatment and portrayal of female comic characters.

The next post in this series discusses Gender Violence and Sexual Imagery.